Write What You Know...But Be Warned


There's been a lot of debate about this lately, with one faction claiming that the idea of NOT writing what you know panics people for two reasons. First, writers have been encouraged, explicitly or implicitly, for as long as they can remember, to write what they know, so the prospect of abandoning that approach now is disorienting. Second, a great many of us know an awful lot.

I'm not here to tell you what to do - or not do - but to tell you what I do and some possible consequences.  I write what I know. Most of my characters, their characteristics, their motivations, are lifted (in part) from people I know or have met in the course of my travels. I feel I can paint a more realistic story by using these core character elements and molding certain features where I need to.

But you should be warned, if you do like I do and commonly use friends and family as first draft readers, then it is likely that you could accidentally piss one of them off.  This particular reader pool can and will easily pick up on traits you've borrowed from a shared acquaintance and try and match them to their respective owners - which sometimes are themselves. When that happens accidental transference can take place.  I've experienced it. You could be using a moral stance, or an ethical quandary, one that is totally imaginary, and a reader could see it as your interpretation -- mistakenly -- of a belief of theirs and feelings can get hurt. Most of the time its out of your control because the people involved rarely tell you how they feel.  Heck -- even when you are describing them in the most honest way you can, that person might still not like what he see's in your mirror.

Just some food for thought. If one of those inner-reading circle people stops returning your calls suddenly, maybe you should take a closer look at your manuscript. :)


8 comments

  1. I don't really understand the 'write what you know' debate. I think it's mostly pedantic. People know human nature, so if you write about humans, you're writing what you know (that goes for aliens, too, since we see them through a human lens). If you've never shot an arrow before and your character is an archer, then you're writing what you DON'T know. Not that you didn't do research, but you don't know how it feels firsthand.
    So, I mean, it's both?
    Either way, it's a good point to be careful who you write about, especially if its friends or family! :)

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  2. Hi Don - yes most definitely be aware when incorporating someone obvious into your writings ... I can agree there. But also agree we just need to get on and write. Cheers Hilary

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  3. I do both. I write what I know and write what I don't know. If I don't know something I do a TON of research to get it right. And if I know someone who knows whatever it is I don't know (does that make sense?). I'll ask him/her to read a section of my writing to get their input.

    Fact is, we can't always write only what we know.

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  4. I don't think I insert much from people I know. If there's a real life Byron out there, I feel for the poor guy.

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  5. That's good advice -- unless you don't like the person then I think it's ok. ;)

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  6. This is why instead of basing characters off of real people, I use film characters ^_~

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  7. I have one book that's based quite closely on a group of friends I had about 20 years ago. Hopefully we've all grown up and changed enough that even if one of them did pick up my book, they wouldn't recognise themselves....

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  8. Well, on the upside, if you wrote a character well enough that the person actually KNEW you based some of that character on him/herself, then you probably wrote the character really well. So yay for that.
    I'm not certain, but I think the Sex and the City series was partly about this, or covered it. Wasn't she supposed to be a journalist or something who wrote about the sex life of herself and her three friends or something along those lines? I lack familiarity with the show, but I'm fairly certain that was supposed to be the premise.

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